Choosing Your Cruising Yacht

Choosing Your Cruising Yacht

Choosing which yacht will be right for you is the ultimate “piece of string question” but essentially a good cruising yacht is 4 things :

Safe  - well designed, sturdily built and able to take the weather as it comes.

Comfortable -  keeping the crew happy rain or shine, hot or cold, windy or calm.

Independent -  only going ashore when you want to not because you need to.   With 220vAC power generation, renewable fresh water, heating, air icon and entertainment all available on board.

Easily Maintained - anywhere in the world and mostly by yourself

There will be many boats that will fit the bill but what do you look for?

Here a few things you might want to consider.

New or Secondhand?

A new boat, of a tried and tested model, is always great however you may have a lot of additional expenditure kitting out with cruising gear and you will have to stand the greatest depreciation.

A used boat may be just as good as new.  Just make sure it has been used and not abused.  The major advantage is that it should come with lots of kit thrown in, which is good as long as it is kit you will need while cruising so check carefully.

Build It Yourself

Ahh the dream of building your own boat and sailing off into the Sunset.

In practice it's a lot more difficult and enormously more expensive than you might think.  Just look through the adverts for part finished projects where disillusioned sailors have either got fed up or simply run out of money.

Building a boat is a bit like doing a 3D jigsaw.  Even from professional design plans it can be challenging.

If you have some good relevant skills or training in boat building, have a suitable space to work in, plenty of time and a good budget don't let me put you off.  But do start the process with your eyes wide open and those rose tinted glasses put firmly to one side.

Of your budget, you will spend:

  • 50% on building the hull and paint work
  • 50% on engine, steering, spars and rigging
  • 50% on fitting out the accommodation
  • 50% on electronics and all the cruising extras you will need.

Yes that's right, whatever you think you will spend, double it at least.

When I refitted Rockhopper in 2003 I spent over £4000 just on stainless fixings - screws, bolts, nuts, washers etc.  None of that was listed, or even thought of, in my refit budget spreadsheet.

Make sure you fully research every cost item and speak to as many people who have already done it as you can before you commit to it.  Join the CA and ask, there are loads of people with stories to tell.


Heavy Displacement Cruiser or Lightweight Cruiser Racer?

Heavy displacement boats carry more gear without undue problems but are often less exciting to sail which can be a good thing in heavy weather.  These are better choice for the full time live-aboard.

Cruiser racers are fast and fun to sail in good weather.  However if you overload with gear they can become dangerous especially in heavy seas.  These are good for split time cruising or restricted duration's of 1 or 2 years where not so much gear accumulates on board.


How many crew to sail?

Beware buying a yacht that needs many hands to sail efficiently.  Most cruisers are couples with occasional guests so keep everything simple.


Sloop, Cutter, Ketch, Yawl or Schooner?

Sloops generally point higher and sail better than ketches. On larger yachts you may need powered winches to cope with large sail areas.

The Cutter Rig adds an inner fore-stay to the Sloop allowing the 2 foresails to create a venturi effect increasing their pulling power.  The Inner fore-stay can also be used to mount a storms’l more easily.

Ketches, with the mizzen forward of the steering post, offer a more flexible sail plan with smaller individual sails.  This means smaller cheaper gear albeit having 2 of everything.   Inner fore-stays, although not common, can be added to the ketch rig as well, mainly for flying a No 2 or storms’l more easily.  They rarely operate as a true cutter as the fore-triangle is too small.

Yawls, with the mizzen aft of the steering post, have a larger fore-triangle and mains’l similar to a sloop with a much smaller mizzen sail that acts mainly as a steadying sail for directional stability.  Yawls are not very common in the cruising community.

Schooners are similar to a ketch in many ways except that the main mast is the rearmost.  The foremast may be the same size or slightly smaller than the main.   Again the ability to spread the sail plan across 2 masts offers much more flexibility and reduced individual sail size.

In my opinion a Stays’l Schooner offers perhaps one of the most pleasing sail plans for ease of use. Only the main mast carries a boom while both masts offer a triangular sail (foresail and stay-sail) usually roller controlled.  Powerful and easy to manage.

There are many other rig types and configurations but they are rarely seen in the cruising community which hints they are not really suited to the cruising life.

Hanked-on Sail Wardrobe or Roller Reefing?

The old traditional hanked-on sails offer the best setting shape and an experienced skipper is able to select the most appropriate size for the conditions.  Sadly the crew then have to handle the sails on the fore deck, an activity which tends to lose its “fun” status after a few sail changes in heavy weather.

Roller Reefing on the foresail is a god-send for the cruising couple offering acceptable setting shape for most conditions with the added advantage of easy adjustment from the cockpit.

Having a second smaller sail mounted on an inner fore-stay, whether hanked-on or managed by a roller system, can be used to cover those higher wind strengths when the larger foresail cannot be rolled down to a good shape.

On ketches, where the fore-triangle is often too small to have a fixed inner fore-stay, consider a removable stay attached to a strong point on the deck with a pelican brace.  The smaller sail is then hanked-on only when needed.  A good compromise.


Slab Reefing, In-Mast Reefing or In-Boom Reefing

Traditional slab reefing is the most simple and trouble-free system for reducing the main or mizzen sail area for heavy weather.   However it can also require leaving the cockpit to hook-on the reefing cringle at the mast and many older yacht still pull in the reefing pennents at the mast as well.

Single line slab reefing systems allow all reefing activity to be carried out from the safety of the cockpit using coachroof mounted winches and jammers which is much better for the cruising couple.

Most yachts will have either 2 or 3 reefing points built into the sail.  Each has to be threaded with control lines ready for use.  There is very little that can go wrong with slab reefing and if anything does it can usually be easily cleared.

In-Mast Reefing, where the mainsail is rolled around a vertical roller inside the mast, allows the mainsail to be infinitely and easily adjusted to meet the conditions.  Most up-market yachts now offer this system.  Like any more-complicated system it must be carefully maintained to ensure smooth operation.  The control lines must be kept taut during sail adjustment to prevent the sail from jamming in the exit slot.  Larger yachts will have the adjustments power controlled.

In-Mast reefing Mainsails cannot have battens to support a roach and therefore have a concave leech which results in a slightly smaller sail area for a given mast height.  The manufacturer should have taken this into account when sizing the rig for the vessel so it should not affect performance.

An In-Mast reefing system can be very noisy in a marina berth if the sail has been removed.  Also if the system does jam for any reason it can be very difficult to clear leaving you with a sail that is half-in/half-out that you can’t drop either.   Repair can be expensive.

In Boom Reefing, where the sail is rolled around a horizontal roller inside the boom, was designed to overcome the loss of battens in in-mast systems.  Once again they offer good adjustment capability to match the conditions.  They must be carefully maintained to ensure smooth operation but if they do jam at least the sail can be dropped to the deck if necessary.   Repair can be expensive.

I tend to operate the KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) principle wherever I can.  Slab reefing, while a little old school, when combined with single line reefing is simple and cheap to maintain while offering good solid operation even under extreme conditions.


Centre Cockpit or Aft Cockpit

Largely personal choice

Centre cockpits are generally thought of as a safer option but they can affect the accommodation by taking up valuable space in the middle of the boat.  They do often offer a large stern deck for sunbathing or partying.  Centre cockpit boats feel smaller to manage but can be more difficult to berth stern-to.

Aft cockpits are more traditional. The boat is all laid out in front of you while you are right there at the stern for stern to berthing.  Communication with the bow can be challenging.

Beware having too large a cockpit.  In heavy weather it is essential that the crew can brace into their seating without fear of being thrown across the cockpit as the yacht heels.

Type of Keel & Rudder

Most modern yachts have a deep fin keel and a narrow blade rudder.  This configuration makes them close winded and nimble while often sacrificing directional stability especially in heavy seas. Blade rudders are easy to damage if grounded or struck by floating objects.

The more traditional shallow but longer fin keel and full depth skeg-hung rudder offers far more security in case of a collision with an underwater object such as a large log just awash.  The increased directional stability keeps the helm light and improves the yacht’s ability to hove-to in heavy weather.

The full length long keel offers the most durability but loses the ability to point and can be very challenging to maneuver in tight spaces especially in reverse.


Hull Material   -  GRP, Wood, Steel, Aluminium, Concrete

GRP - low maintenance, heavy layups are strong and resilient.  Lighter layups suffer badly in collisions and groundings.  Boats from the 1990s onwards much less likely to suffer from Osmosis due to improved resins. Underwater sections are best if they have been epoxy-coated from new.  Gel coat repair requires a specialist and can be expensive.  Older yachts are often paint sprayed to improve their topsides finish.

Wood - usually very aesthetically pleasing but require high maintenance and can be costly to repair if damaged.

Steel - very strong and durable, likely to survive collisions and grounding with minimal damage.  Easy to repair worldwide.  Requires close monitoring of paint finish, both inside and out, to guard against corrosion.

Aluminum - strong and reasonable durable.  Sharp collision may penetrate but usually just dent.  Specialised and costly repair.  Sensitive to copper debris in the bilge and electrolysis in marinas.

Concrete - strong if well made but are often home-built using inferior materials. Easy to repair minor scrapes.

How many berths?

Most cruisers are couples who host a few friends and family for occasional holidays.  With that in mind you want a spacious comfortable master cabin and one or two other cabins possibly 1 double and 1 twin bunks max.

Extra bunks will only be used as storage space which might be better utilised in a different layout.


Size Does Matter

In my experience, having met with many many cruisers, the optimum size of a monohull cruiser seems to lie between 36’ and 46’.  Any smaller and it can be a spartan, tough place to live for any length of time with little space for easy living.

Any larger and it becomes a lot to handle unless you are both very experienced sailors.  

The 36-46 range offers ample storage space and places to fit equipment such as generators, water makers, heating etc.

Modern lighter equipment and powered winches can extend the size out to 55’ but maintenance becomes more expensive and marina berths more difficult to find.

Fitting-Out Yourself and Your Crew

Fitting-Out Yourself and Your Crew

Fitting-Out Your New Cruiser

Fitting-Out Your New Cruiser